HOPIN DIED before he could finish his “Method of Piano Playing,” but we do possess a few fragments, completed before his tragic death from tuberculosis in 1849. Chopin wrote that: “upon fingering, all depends.” There is great wisdom in that; but Josef Hofmann—Chopin’s greatest interpreter—would later say something slightly different to Sasha Greiner. Speaking of the Chopin Etudes, Hofmann made a comment which I interpret to mean “upon repertoire, all depends.” I admit that Hofmann’s comment could be interpreted in different ways, but Hofmann’s basic point was: choosing repertoire is extremely important.
The Mind Of The Church : The Catholic Church does not desire the same music to be used at every Mass. Imagine a church where only Mass VIII is sung; the priest hears Mass VIII as a child, then every Sunday as a young man, then every Sunday as a middle aged man, then every Sunday as an old man. This cannot be correct, and we have proof if we look at the Kyriale, which contains nineteen (!) full Masses and many more “ad libitum” settings. In the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of settings of the KYRIE, hundreds of settings of the SANCTUS, and so forth. The mind of the Catholic Church, therefore, is clear. Choirmasters should not be embarrassed if they grow tired of certain pieces which are repeated too frequently. Indeed, I remember reading an interview in which a famous concert pianist said: “I will never again play Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. I have just finished judging a competition where fifty students played Mephisto, and I never want to hear it again. I have heard it too often.”
The Vexing Dilemma : How often should we repeat pieces? That’s a difficult question. The reality is, for each musician there was a “first time.” I remember the first time I heard Father Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. I remember the first time I head Father Allegri’s Miserere Mei. I remember the first time I heard Father Morales’ Missa Mille Regretz. I remember the first time I heard Liszt’s Sixth Rhapsody. I remember the first time I heart Liszt’s Gnomenreigen. I could list 100 more pieces, and tell you where I was the first time I heard them; these are magical moments. When we hear a masterpiece, our behavior can become frenzied. I remember chasing Simon Carrington down the hallway, trying to convince him to program Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I am so embarrassed when I think about this! But we do embarrassing things when we first discover a masterpiece—because we are excited. Therefore, let us never “beat down” someone who just discovered a masterpiece.
My Solution : I believe certain pieces should be repeated again and again, while new pieces should also be added. When it comes to the pieces that should be repeated each Sunday, they should be worthy of repetition. In other words, they ought to have musical depth. Examples of pieces with musical depth would be Guerrero’s “Missa Beata Mater” or Palestrina’s “Missa Jam Christus” or Guerrero’s “Missa Iste Sanctus” or Victoria’s “Missa Ave Maris Stella” or Palestrina’s “Kyrie Eleyson” based on Fons Bonitatis. These are pieces which can be listened to hundreds of times without becoming stale. There should always be certain responses (“acclamations”) by the congregation which never change—although choral extensions and varied organ accompaniment can add freshness. Moreover, there should always be a few familiar pieces, such as the melodies found in the Brébeuf hymnal. If you are teaching a new hymn, it should be played as Prelude and Offertory for a long time, so the congregation learns the melody by ear. Incidentally, when I am assigned to play four or five Masses on Sunday, I am so glad the Brébeuf hymnal provides many different melodies for each text; playing the same hymn five times in one day would frustrate me.
Change For The Sake Of Change ? We must avoid “change for the sake of change.” Choir members like to repeat repertoire—but remember that a healthy choir will always be recruiting, so don’t expect every member to “remember” every piece. If the piece does not improve, I don’t like to repeat it: nothing is as depressing as a piece getting worse with age. I believe the choir members keep coming back because the choirmaster feeds them new repertoire, which has been carefully selected. For example, if you plan to introduce a piece based on a Cantus Firmus, you can have the choir sing that same tune with a contemporary harmonization to get the melody in their heads. (We do this all the time, and it works very well.) Choir members will be more receptive to a movement from a Cantus Firmus Mass if they already know and love the tune.
A Whole New World : Often, new repertoire can open up a whole new world. For example, as a college student I couldn’t cook, so I constantly ate frozen pizza. But when I got married, my wife cooked pizza from scratch, using quality ingredients—and I will never eat another frozen pizza! Her cooking opened up a whole new world. (To say nothing of her expertise cooking Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Filipino, and Italian cuisine.) We must guard against becoming jaded. Fulton Sheen always said a professor must “tear up the class notes at the end of each semester.” There are certain pieces by Palestrina, Byrd, Allegri, and Victoria which are sung so often it’s hard to understand how the conductor can view their performance as anything but a tedious, tiresome exercise. 1 I believe God wants choirmasters to take delight in the performance of sacred music.
Your Friends : There’s an old saying: “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” I can often discern everything I need to know by examining a musician’s repertoire. On the other hand, I am sometimes shocked to discover that a particular artist loved a particular composer. For example: Sviatoslav Richter liked Alban Berg; Glenn Gould liked Arnold Schoenberg; and Monsignor Jules Van Nuffel liked Wagner!
I look forward to reading what the other contributors have to say about this topic. I have (quickly) skimmed their submissions, and there has been surprising variety; I think readers are in for a treat!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 When it comes to “growing tired” of hearing music, Ferruccio Busoni takes the cake. They say that toward the end of Busoni’s life, he had pretty much gotten sick of hearing every composer except for 2-3 pieces of Johann Sebastian Bach. Yikes!